Estación Biológica Cocha Cashu
Francis was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, 18 months after his brother Stephen. His parents, Luc and Myriam Bossuyt had emigrated two years earlier from Belgium, with unbounded enthusiasm to start a new life and family on their own, in such a far and unknown place.
As a baby, Francis already displayed the restlessness that would further mark his life. His baby cot was always untidy. He’d push off the covers as if he struggled to get out of his secure confinement and could not wait to check out the rest of the world!
And he would get many opportunities to do just that.
His curiosity knew no bounds and he loved to create chaos out of order so he could find out how things worked. First he’d take his toys apart, later his bicycle, his first radio, inexplicable things used to happen to his car, his tools or his electronic gadgets. It became a family joke that anything Francis laid his hands on would mysteriously fall apart. But to him, to try and "fix’ things was a challenge and a creative way of learning, and if by chance he could put things back together again, he triumphed!
Visits to Zululand and the Kruger Park game reserves brought the boys in close range to the animals they only saw in pictures before. Although Francis was too young at the time to remember much about these trips, he always enjoyed watching the slides each time he came home later in life and appreciated his early exposure to different cultures and countries.
In 1973, when Francis was 5 years old, the company his Dad worked for transferred his family to London, and after a memorable overland trip to Cape Town, they boarded a small ocean liner for the 16 days crossing to Europe. Stops at Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Canary Islands and Barcelona, Spain, were colorful and exiting experiences.
Francis had developed a very sweet nature and made friends easily among the many ethnic children in his new school in a suburb of London. Together with his brother, they spend much time playing outside with their friends in the neighborhood.
While living in England, he got to meet his family in Belgium for the first time and since then, always looked forward to go visit them. He became particularly close to his Granddad.
Although Francis knew very little of the native language Flemish, a Dutch dialect, he never hesitated to use it. He would amuse his Grandpa with stories of his adventures, travels and studies and make a great effort to make himself understood, sometimes with hilarious results. To his Grandpa’s delight, Francis was always very interested to hear him talk about his World War II experiences, stories that were sometimes greatly embellished or dramatized.
Two years later, in 1975, his family was relocated back to South Africa. They moved to the outskirts of Benoni, a small town East of Johannesburg. The house was situated close to open fields and gently sloping bush veldt. Small holdings and farms dotted the hills and dusty paths were lined with masses of roadside Cosmos flowers in autumn. In this natural environment Francis and Stephen spend most of their after -school time. They explored on their bicycles or went for long walks with Mom, picking flowers, looking at the birds and creatures scurrying in the sand.
It was at this time, Francis and his brother attended their first art classes which they both enjoyed very much, an interest that Francis would explore further through the years.
In 1977, when Soweto and other black townships erupted violently and treats were made to white schools, the Company, concerned for their safety, decided to send the family back to England once again.
For a while, Francis missed his friends from Benoni and was bullied in his new school for his strange accent. (Afrikaans)
His best times were spent behind his house where rolling fields stretched as far as one could see. Docile cows would laze in a shady dale in summer and thick hedgerows lined the fields, heavy with berries in the fall. The children played hide and seek in the bushes and chased the cows, picked the wildflowers and made bouquets for their moms. The boys would build a " camp" with twigs and branches and the girls would "cook" It was a place of escape and it allowed to develop a fondness of nature in them. It stimulated their senses without TV and one can guess that those experiences influenced the direction Francis took later in life.
But Francis was unhappy in school especially after being sent to a private school as an alternative to the English system that offered him little choice to develop his abilities at the time. The discipline was strict. If the students stepped out of line, the Master would give them the cane in front of their schoolmates, and, although short, the memories of that miserable period never faded in his memory.
So it was a lucky break for him, when after four years, his family was transferred to the USA in 1982.
Francis started Middle School at Trumbull High School, a year ahead of his class. The strict discipline of the English school had helped improve his grades and he was considered bright enough to skip a class upon arrival, thereby, once again, alienating him from the kids his age. But because of his "worldliness" and accent he soon became popular enough to surround himself with a bunch of new friends and he joined them in many different activities.
He learned to ski, fished in the pond at home, swam and read a lot while TV viewing was heavily restricted.
He began to work a paper round, and in the summer vacation worked at Beardsley Park Zoo in Bridgeport, caring for tropical plants in the greenhouse and helped with the landscaping.
He also canvassed for Connecticut Public Interest Group campaigning to clean up Long Island Sound and for stricter enforcement of the Clean Air Act and for a while, he worked at a Men’s Homeless Shelter as well.
He became interested in the popular bands of the time like The Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrickx, Neil Young, Pink Floyd, and his all time favorite Bob Marley. Later came Van Morrison and Miles Davis, John Coltrane etc. He’d always have music playing in the background when he was working or studying.
At a tag sale he bought an old guitar, restored it and learned to play.
Up to now, him and his brother Stephen had almost been inseparable, but the time had come that their paths went in different directions. Stephen left for College a year before Francis and suddenly he found himself at home mostly with his mother, while his Dad traveled all over the world for his job. He took up Art classes again, sketched and painted and surprised everyone with a couple of fine woodcarvings. Sometimes he hiked with his mother and became interested in bird watching.
When he graduated from Trumbull High in 1986, the only thing for certain he knew was which direction he was not going to take, and it would be a while before that was to be revealed to him.
He had applied to Earlham College in Indiana, a small Quaker school because larger colleges and campuses did not appeal to him.
He was admitted but before he started the academic school year he joined a group of freshman on an orientation trip to Canada, camping and canoeing when friendships were formed which were to last through the years. He entered Earlham happy to be independent at last and with many dreams to follow.
Ornithology became his main interest and he worked in the Biology Department as a Teaching Assistant for the course. He led groups of undergraduates in the field to teach bird identification and he conducted independent studies.
He had joined several organizations at Earlham and worked for a while in a nursery in Richmond to supervise educational and creativity projects for 3-5 year olds. At the same time, he was training very rigorously for the Earlham Triathlon, which he singly completed twice.
In 1988 he went to Kenya as part of a Foreign Student Program focusing on African wildlife and ecology. He organized to climb Mt.Kenya with a couple of his friends, an experience they still remember vividly. On the mountain, they got caught in some tricky weather changes and it took some "cool" thinking to get everyone back down safely. Francis took many slides of this hike, showing the mountains with the stunning views from the trails, the difficult terrain they had to cross and the unique endemic plants and vegetation.
He also traveled to Costa Rica, and during the summer of 1989, he took a semester at RISDI, (Rhode Island School of Design) as he was still very much undecided if he wanted to become an artist or a biologist. The result was that he found that a specific art education was too restrictive at the time when there was so much else to learn. He had made many friends at Earlham and it was with renewed enthusiasm that he returned in the fall to continue his studies.
In the summer of 1990, he graduated and his parents and brother watched proudly as he received his Bachelor’s Degree Diploma with Department Honors and College All Honors. He had amassed a lot of knowledge, friendships, deep beliefs and strong opinions and the future was wide open.
After the Graduation ceremony, the time came to leave his friends and Earlham behind and start the long drive home to Connecticut. But his departure from Earlham was marked with a typical Francis mishap, his car keys were missing! He had been celebrating the night before with his friends besides a small lake, and the keys had fallen out of his pocket in the water. This being late Sunday afternoon, it took hours to find someone in the sleepy town of Richmond to come and get his car started with a new set of keys which resulted in an overnight drive back for the exhausted family.
Once home, he soon prepared to test the road he was about to follow.
After a few half hearted job applications, he successfully applied for Research Assistant at the Alaska Fish and Wildlife Research Center in Anchorage, to participate in a study of Emperor geese.
He was dropped off on an isolated area in the Thunder Bay Peninsula with his supplies. There was not much else than an old shack and flocks of geese on the island…Despite the harsh conditions he collected much valuable data for the project on the survival and migration patterns of the Emperor geese.
Upon his return home, he became restless and left to visit friends in Seattle. He returned in December that same year for the Holidays with a friend and in February he packed his small Ford Chevette to the gills, steadily leaking oil. The adventurous spirit had taken hold of him and he was so certain it was the right thing to do that nothing could stop him. Miraculously they crossed the country, back to Seattle, without any major mishaps!
From Seattle, he eventually moved to San Francisco where the scene was much more inspiring.
To support himself, he took a job at the Burt Children’s Center for severely disturbed children. When he talked about his work there, it was always with a lot of compassion and feeling for these poor kids and he gave a lot of himself to them. He once wrote a friend that he learned more about "love" from being with those children than from anything he’d experienced before!
His dedication earned him a Certificate of Appreciation for his outstanding contributions and services. When he left after 4 years, he was heartbroken to have to leave them behind.
Meanwhile he had met
up with a friend from Earlham who had started a band. He got himself a
drum kit and he learned to play so he could join the band when they played
in local bars. Sometimes he wrote songs for them too. They got lucky one
time when they had a chance to open up for other bands at a Lollapalooza
Concert in August, 1995, and it is quite a sight to see Francis behind
the drums, up on a huge stage!
San Francisco indeed inspired him and his artistic streak surfaced again. He took photography and art classes at UC Berkeley and at the City College of San Francisco where he produced some outstanding work.
Whenever his family visited, he took them to see the beautiful Bay area where he knew every nook and cranny from the bike rides he took around the area in his free time.
At Christmas time he’d always go home to Connecticut for the Holidays, and he also went to visit his family again in Belgium.
Each time Francis had to fly something would happen. On this occasion, he got to the Airport in San Francisco on the wrong day. Returning the next day, he forgot to take his passport so he missed his plane. He finally arrived in Belgium two days late for a family celebration, with only two more days left to visit!
While working at the Burt Center, Francis kept talking about wanting to return to school to get a Master’s degree, and finally in the summer of 1994, he was ready to go. We were not quite clear how he made the decision to go to UC Davis and chose Animal Behavior as his major, but we know he never regretted it.
Back on campus, he quickly adjusted to the academic environment and was in awe of his advisers. He wrote to a friend, that they made him feel like the sky was the limit and he was ready to test how far he could go. He considered himself very lucky to have that opportunity and he was fully prepared to work hard to reach his goals. For the next five years, he would just do that.
He managed to take time off once in a while to be with his friends, play music, go camping or go home.
On April 28, 1995, his 26th birthday, he had a car accident on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco that totaled his car but left him physically unharmed. There were some legal complications later on, which were quite a distraction for him, but luckily his Dad helped him out as much as he could and stopped over on one of his business trips to help him find another car. The accident became more significant for the tragic news he received from Belgium later on. It turned out that Peter, Francis’s cousin had died that same day. It was an event that made a lasting impression on Francis.
In the labs of the Primate Center he was working with Titi Monkeys but he found it quite frustrating that he could not observe them in their natural environment. So he decided to find a site where he could work in the field to obtain his necessary data.
After much searching around, he decided on Cocha Cashu in Manu National Park in Peru, a site operated by John Terborgh, Professor of Environmental Sciences at Duke University.
In the first half of 1996, he started preparing for his first trip out to the jungle to basically scout out the site and to check if the area was suitable for the kind of research he had in mind. The week before he left for Peru, his Mom and Brother Stephen flew to Davis to help him with his last minute preparations and to see him off at the airport on June, 17th.
They were so exited to see him go pursue his dreams, and were so proud of how he stepped into the unknown with so much determination, high hopes and expectations, trusting everything would be OK.
They could not have known how soon they’d see him back…
On July 17, TWA flight 800 crashed off Long Island on the way to Paris, France. His dad was on the plane…
It is hard to describe the chaos that went on in those first days, those feelings of horror, panic and disbelief, the frantic attempts to get in touch with Francis at Cocha Cashu, the pain of having to tell him what happened, and to arrange his trip back home. I remember we couldn’t function without having him with us and we were so relieved when he finally made it back home.
He was shattered and found it a crying shame he would no longer be able to share his successes and achievements with him.
At the memorials and at the funeral, the presence of his brother was comforting and he was calm and dignified. He privately paid moving tributes to his Dad, images that will forever be etched in our memories.
Soon after, he needed to return to UC Davis to complete his graduate studies and to make a new plan for the future. It was with relief that we heard he made up his mind that Cocha Cashu was the place where he wanted to continue his research. He knew it would make his Dad happy if he lived his life to the fullest, and he became more determined than ever to go back there. When his Mom and Aunt visited him in Davis in March of 1997, they found him very confident and exuberant about his decision.
He graduated on the 3rd of July from UC Davis, and briefly went home for the Memorial Services on the first Anniversary of the Crash of Flight 800.
He returned to Davis, loaded up his car and on August 18, drove all the way back home, across country, making a few stops to visit old friends on the way.
He had a little over two weeks left to get ready for his return trip to Cocha Cashu. It was a frantic time, of last minute changes and dashes to the stores. When he was finally ready to go, his luggage was so heavy he could barely lift it in his Mom’s small car! It was the 8th of September, when he stepped on that plane to start another episode in his life…
Once he was gone, we could get in touch with him over the radio system that was quite inadequate to relate long stories to each other. But each time we got through, his voice was brimming with excitement about his work and the place. Hallo, hallo…over…over…can you hear me?- over…became a familiar sound!
We could hardly wait to see him again when he returned for Christmas that year. His Mom had planned to spend the Holidays in Los Angeles where Stephen lived and she was the one to pick Francis up from the airport when he arrived. He was quite a sight, looking like one of the explorers she had read about. He carried some spears he brought for Christmas presents and his clothes and himself all needed a good scrub!
It was a happy reunion and we all delighted to hear his stories. Still, he had so much work that there was little time left to spend together and to entertain him. He worked without a break and after the Holidays he took off to UC Davis to work some more.
He could hardly wait to return to Cocha Cashu as he was worried about " his" monkeys being left without him and he left the States again for Peru on Jan. 16, this time without any escort.
His Mom had promised to visit him. She planned the trip so she could travel overland, across the cloud forest, on a bus to the river rather than flying in to Boca Manu. She always wanted to see the place where Francis seemed to be so happy and also to get an idea what he had to go through to make it out of the jungle on his own at the time he heard of his Dad’s accident.
She left on April 25th and after visiting Machu Pichu she set out with a friend and a guide for the trip across the Andes.
After two days, they finally reached the Manu River, off the Madre de Dios. She was to meet Francis at a place called Cocha Salvador where he would meet her halfway. The night before they had talked on the radio but because of a bad connection it was not clear what time he was going to be there. She was not worried because she thought she’d look around the place, until he arrived. Cocha Salvador turned out to be just a sandbank with cayman sunning themselves! No bargains to be had there!
When finally the sound of an engine could be heard and the boat turned around the bend in the river, she saw Francis and she jumped for joy. It was an incredible feeling to meet with him out there far away from all the things that had happened …and nothing else mattered anymore!
They traveled on to Cocha Cashu where they arrived just before dark at the camp, situated by a small oxbow lake, a short distance away from the river.
The camp was crowded with young students from the "Evergreen School". A lot of activity was going on, and it was very interesting to see what they brought back from the jungle to study. Everyone was totally absorbed by what they were doing and unafraid. It was impressive how well they handled being in this remote place without the comforts of home.
Francis had taken over some duties at the camp and he was always very busy. Each day he needed to go check on his monkeys and it was quite a thrill for his Mom to be able to join him and search for his groups. He was still trying to habituate them. The darting techniques had been very frustrating and required enormous patience and only a few monkeys had been fitted with radio collars at this time.
His Mom could see first hand now what a difficult and exhausting project he had undertaken, but his persistence would pay off in the end.
She left after a few days and Francis joined her for the trip down river to Boca Manu where they said goodbye. She flew back to Cuzco and was not going to see Francis again till he returned home for Christmas in December.
Before heading for home, he spend a week at Davis where he worked on his collected data and presented some of it to his colleagues and advisors, Bill Mason and Peter Rodman.
After the holidays, he left home for Peru in January 1999 and stayed out at Cocha Cashu for the rest of the year till the next December.
During the year we kept in touch with him over the radio and through letters he sent along with outgoing students. Throughout, he never lost his enthusiasm for his work. He had collared seven groups of monkeys and collected unique data from these large groups.
When he left on the 17th of January from San Francisco for Peru, little did we know of what was looming ahead.
Since January, we spoke a few more times on the new satellite phone which made it possible to have a normal conversation, the last time, at Easter, when Stephen was home. Francis sounded as chirpy as ever and he was glad to hear his brother on the phone. The night before they had a small party at the camp, Thadaigh, Jeanette and another student were leaving and only Amy, Jean Paul and Francis would stay at the camp. Jeanette had made her famous Pizza and Julian had joined them with his small son too. They took pictures and everyone was smiling happily…
April, 28, 2000, Francis’s 31st birthday.
Francis spent the last 10 years away from home. First, he moved to Seattle, then to San Francisco and to Davis, California.
Many details of his life since he was away, escape me, but are now slowly being revealed through contact with his professors who encouraged and believed in him and knew the full scope of his work.
Through stories his many friends told me, of the good and bad times they shared with Francis.
Through the papers, letters, art work, music, prints and slides, stacks of books, personal diaries and notes and the data of his unfinished scientific work he left behind.
I am learning of the intensity of his feelings for others, and of the wide range of his interests, that he pursued with such relentless dedication.
He worked so hard, he loved so much…
I am reaching into my memory to recall conversations with him. Family and friends have helped me to fill in the gaps. Francis was a prolific writer and kept in touch with many people through the years and also he kept every scrap of paper and all the letters and cards he ever received! He wrote his friends about his love of Cocha Cashu and of his fear for it’s future and how important it is to protect one of the last unspoiled places on this planet.
He wrote how much there was to learn from animals. From observing their behavior, he stated that the monkeys exemplify "Love"!
Each time he came home to visit, everything came to life again. The energy spilled out of his room to the tunes of Bob Marley or Miles Davis.
I got many prints and slides of those happy days when the whole family was together and they help to place events and faces in a time frame but the Spirit of our loved ones will reside in our hearts forever.
Sweet Sweet Francis, we hope you are peacefully reunited with Dad.
We miss your smile and laughter, the sound of your voice, the warmth of your hugs and the power of your mind.
We will never forget you and always love you…
Trumbull, March 24, 2001